Heroines of Hanukkah and Our Own Times

Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_CaravaggioThis year, Hanukkah is being linked to important activism around many issues, particularly racial injustice and police violence. As many of us join these struggles, let us also use this holiday to focus on the bravery and activism of feminists speaking out bravely about the realities of rape and sexual harassment on college campuses, in sacred spaces, and beyond.

The courage of so many women speaking out calls to my mind the Hanukkah stories of Judith and the nameless Hasmonean bride. These women, whose stories became part of the Hanukkah tradition during the medieval period, speak powerfully across the ages to those working to combat gender violence. In bringing them to light this Hanukkah, it is my hope to further spur discussions and action within our Jewish communities and beyond, on ways that we as Jews can be part of struggles for greater justice for all those effected by gender-based violence in its many forms.

According to a statement in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 23a, women are obligated in the lighting of the Hanukkah candles because they were part of the miracle of Hanukkah. What does this mean? The medieval commentator Rashi relates it to a tradition that in the time of the Hasmoneans, the Syrian-Greeks had decreed that all Jewish brides were to be sexually violated by Syrian-Greek officers on their wedding night. Rashi then says “and the miracle was accomplished with the help of a woman.” The story Rashi is referring to here, according to scholar Eliezer Siegal, is one preserved in medieval sources in which a Hasmonean bride responded to this institutionalized practice of rape by tearing her wedding dress off in the middle of her wedding party. Standing naked before all those assembled, she used her body to shock the assembled guests and spur them to finally act against this practice, thus sparking the Maccabean Revolt.

Other medieval commentators link the Talmudic injunction for women to light Hanukkah candles with the apocryphal story of Judith, which was commonly read on Hanukkah during the medieval period, and which features the character of a Jewish widow who, with wisdom, faith and courage, confronts the passive male leadership of her era with a model of piety and activism, and then takes matters into her own hands, manipulating the enemy General Holofernes to allow her into his inner chamber where she cuts off his head, thereby achieving victory for her people.

What do we learn from these medieval traditions associated with Hanukkah? One thing that we learn is that there is a tradition of female resistance to oppression that is woven into the Hanukkah tradition. And, more than that, that these stories of women’s leadership involve a complex negotiation of women’s use of their bodies and sexuality as part of their power. Judith veils herself in her approaching the enemy general; the Hasmonean bride undresses herself completely. Both are engaged in revealing the nature of an oppressive system by taking seriously their own agency around their bodies and actions. Both operate in systems in which women are not empowered and yet they become strong symbols of power for medieval Jews in a time of limited power.

Is there a relationship between the action of these women of Hanukkah and the situation that many teenage girls and women find themselves in today? These women and girls have their choices and freedom around their own bodies and sexuality limited by external forces, not in the guise of enemy generals but as conveyed through the actions of individuals who sexualize women’s bodies and by a culture that objectifies women and girls and thus threatens their leadership and power.

The Hasmonean bride’s activism involved making what is usually private, public. Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz’s decision to carry her mattresses around campus to draw attention to the weight of the burden she carries as a survivor of sexual assault similarly breaks the boundaries between public and private. Her actions and the moves of other women in recent weeks powerfully coming forward with their own stories of sexual assault and insisting that public action be taken to address the issue of rape whether on campus or by previously celebrated public figures, make clear that these are not private or secret matters to be suffered and settled quietly but serious issues of public health and safety to be addressed openly and proactively.

Is there a way that these women of Hanukkah can also speak to teenage boys today and to youth of all genders about the ways that gender norms limit their lives and possibilities? I think so. The tale of Judith offers a model of a woman who used conventional gender expectations to ultimately subvert them. She knew that those around her would see her as a sexual object and thus not as serious threat and she used that to her advantage to achieve the victory she knew her people needed. Earlier in the story, she plays on gender norms in a different way, when she speaks out against the leadership of her community and warns them that if they don’t act, victory will come through the hands of a woman. In our own day, many of us still find ourselves using assumptions about our gender to gain power and access. But we also each have experiences of how those assumptions limit our freedom and ability to be our full selves.

In my work at Moving Traditions, I have the opportunity to create materials and train educators to create pathways for Jewish teenagers to explore, critique, and challenge restrictive gender norms and messages in safe, fun and engaging Jewish spaces. I believe that ultimately this work has the potential to not only improve the lives of individual teenagers and young adults but to change the dynamics that make sexual assault as prevalent and pernicious a problem today as it was over twenty years ago when I was among the founding peer counselors at the Columbia/Barnard Rape Crisis Center. Our work is clearly far from over. Change has to happen on a fundamental level. Each of us must be moved to see ourselves and each other as sacred beings. Part of how that happens is by strengthening the link between activism and social change and religious and ritual life. That is why I am moved to connect Hanukkah to these contemporary issues of sexual violence.

Perhaps it’s a small beginning. But the stories we tell do matter. Thus I invite us to tell these more complicated stories of Hanukkah this year; to hold up the holiday as one that not only tells the story of a revolt about religious boundaries and freedom but also as one that contains within it the seeds of resistance against gender injustice in its many interconnected forms.

When we light the candles this year, we can infuse this understanding into our practice through the simple addition of two words to the second candle blessing, saying “you have made miracles for our fathers and mothers in those days at this time” –“she’asa nisim l’avotienu v’imoteinu (or l’horienu) bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh.” With these words we are called on to recognize not just a more complete past but the opportunity of a more just present. May we seize this opportunity to recognize the role that each one of us can play to stand up in our own communities and institutions and join our voices to those striking at the heart and head of sexist and gender-confining norms and practices with the strength and clarity of Judith. May we increase our support of those combating oppressive gender norms and practices with the hutzpah and bravery of the Hasmonean bride.